As those of you who follow my tumblr already know, I had the worst damn time with this chapter. First I took a month off to focus on finishing off my other Guardians fic, Frost Flowers. Then I dove immediately into a six-week slump of hating every single word I put on the page. And THEN, just as I was getting my groove back, I got slapped with finals, papers, traveling, Christmas shopping, and other nonsense that comes with the end of the semester.

As it stands, I'm still not 100% happy with it. But! It's finally written now so we can get on to better, more interesting things. Sorry about the wait, everybody. Let's get this show on the road.

Chapter Nineteen: Siege of the North Pole


Even with all his years in the shadows, Jack had never known such a deep and infinite darkness. He stumbled through the black with eyes outstretched, unable to see his own hands, feet, or the tips of his nose. He pressed his fingers into the wooden panels that lined the workshop's walls and and strained his ears for any noise.

Nothing. All he heard was the shift and slide of his own bare feet against the floor.

Jack lickedhisdry lips,pressing on with his arm outstretched to guide his way. "Sandman? Sandy?" he called. "Are you there?"

His voice through the frozen ar with no more response than the last three times he called. Jack wracked his brain, trying to remember how he'd gotten here and why. Last thing he knew, he'd been in his room with Sandman. Then the lights went out and cold wind began to howl and glass shattered in every corner of the Pole and then…

Then Jack woke up, alone in the dark with no sign of the Sandman or anyone else. He had no sight, no sense of direction, and no way to know where he stood.

Steeling his nerves, Jack pressed on through the darkness until, without warning, the wall beneath his hand disappeared. He stumbled into the open space between two halls, which met in a cross-shaped center joint. He jerked back to full balance and cursed himself for being so easy to scare. He was alone here. Nothing was going to…

Warm breath ghosted over the back of his neck.

Jack held his breath. Slowly, he turned on the spot, peering into the open hall on his right. In its shadow, he spotted glittering golden eyes. Three pairs. Four pairs. Six. Twelve.

Jack threw himself to the floor seconds before a Nightmare horde charged straight through the space where he'd been standing. Not a one of them noticed him. Perhaps they didn't care. Their hooves pounded the air a bare inch over Jack's skull, thundering with blows that made his head spin.

"Sandy!" he shouted, protecting his head with his arms. "Pitch!"

But his cries were lost in the rumble of Nightmare hooves. Neither being could have responded anyway, with Sandman long gone and Pitch…If Pitch was here, he'd be at heart of the battlefield or lingering from a distance, directing the troops. He was a general, after all. That's where he belonged.

Without so much as a second's pause, the Nightmares vanished into the dark. Jack remained on the ground, heart pounding and ears straining to be sure the beasts would not return. All the while he cursed himself in his mind. He should have reacted better. He'd been trained for battle, he knew how to fight. But that training hadn't planned on him being alone and unarmed, lost in enemy territory and hounded by allies who wouldn't even look his way.

He uncurled once he knew the Nightmares were gone for good. Pain lanced through one palm as he pushed himself from the floor. Jack winced, fingers curling instinctively towards the wound. There he found an inch-long glass shard embedded in the space between finger. In their initial assault, the Nightmares shattered every workshop window and scattered the shrapnel to all corners of the Pole. Their wounds covered Jack's bare feet. Only adrenaline numbed the pain.

As he eased the offending shard from his palm, Jack's ears caught a new sound in the distance, humming like an old electric light. Drawing closer, it became the buzz of hummingbird wings fighting the frozen air. A colored flash burst past, drawing his eye. "Babytooth?"

It couldn't be her. A dozen fairies haunted the Pole, serving as court to their mother-queen. And yet, luck seemed to be with him this time. With a squawk, the buzzing doubled back. A ball of feathers struck Jack right in the chest. It clung to his shirt with tiny arms and chirped with desperate relief.

Jack cupped the fairy in his palms and lifted her to eye-level, barely able to make out her dual-colored gaze in the gloom. He smiled. "Hey Baby," he whispered, returning the affection when she nuzzled his cheek. "I missed you too. I'm glad you're okay."

Babytooth cooed similar sentiments, curling as deep into his palms as she could. She found the blood from Jack's wound and squealed in distress, starring at the cool liquid that covered her hands.

"It's fine, it's fine," said Jack hurriedly, tipping the fairy into his other palm. "Don't worry, I'm okay, really. See?"

He curled his fingers towards the palm, calling up the cold to freeze his blood and knit skin. Once ice covered the wound he turned the palm to show Babytooth. "See? All better."

The fairy cooed, unconvinced by the quick work. She huddled into a little ball, rubbing the blood from her palms and shivering. Her breath turned to tiny puffs in the frigid air.

Jack held her closer, only for the shivering to grow worse, followed by a loud sneeze. He sighed. "Sorry. I can only keep you cold."

This must be miserable for her. Even Jack could feel the frozen air bearing down on them, thickening the frost that layered his skin. From all he'd seen and heard, he got the feeling that colorful birds like the Tooth Fairies were meant to live in warmth. Could even their Queen survive the fury of this unnatural winter storm?

Jack looked to Babytooth again and realized that he could see her now, her bright features glittering a faint twilight gold. He lifted his head and found a thin strand of dreamsand sneaking along the seam between ceiling and wall. It flickered, weak and strained even as it tried with all its might to illuminate the darkness. Then it died, crumbling like snow and fading away before it reached their hands.

Dread pooled in Jack's stomach. He thought of the Sandman's wound and how much energy the dreamweaver had put into the fight in Jack's room. He'd be exhausted.

Jack lurched onto his feet, ignoring the ache of his many cuts. "Come on, Babytooth." He tucked her into his sweatshirt pocket. "Let's go find your mom."

With one hand on the wall, he followed the sand's trail, ears straining for any hint of distant noise. Soon he caught the sounds of battle up ahead and gave chase, his anxiety sending him into a run. The final hallway flickered with flame right before he burst into the torchlit chaos of the globe room.

Fires burned throughout all eight floors of the circular chamber, some coming from torches and others from burning Christmas trees. A machine on the sixth floor, where Jack stood, belched smoke and sparks. He had to leap to one side to avoid the heat. Two floors down, a yeti army roared and were echoed by their comrades on every level. Weapons clashed with Nightmare hooves, the clang and crash of metal blades echoing all through the dome.

Jack leapt onto an abandoned workbench, scanning the battle for Sandman, the Guardians, Pitch, anything to orient himself. He found only chaos. The workshop and all its wares lay in shambles, with presents crushed and toys smashed to bits. Ice crystals and broken glass from the shattered skylights covered every surface, virtually indistinguishable, each shard colder than the last. On every floor, the yetis pushed back against incalculable odds. A few carried torches to light the way and were first among their number to be targets. The rest battled hundreds of Nightmares with sabers, axes, clubs, and spears.

Jack raked his eyes over every layer but found no sign of either Pitch or the Guardians. He raised his eyes to the darkened globe and felt his frozen heart stop dead.

Nightmares scoured bronze continents and swarmed the copper seas. Only these weren't just Nightmares, not like Jack had ever seen. These beasts, perhaps a dozen strong, were less horse-like now than vaguely horse-shaped abominations made from every terrible thing ever imagined to lurk beneath beds.

One turned a bulging eye on Jack, who shuddered as primal fear slipped into his stomach. How many teeth, he wondered. How many memories gorged this monster to its twisted fill?

His shock barely had time to registered before the terrible Nightmare leapt his way, sounding an unearthly shriek that rattled Jack's bones. The boy bounded back just before the creature struck him. It hit the table instead and splintered the oakwood beams, which sent Jack tumbling to the ground.

Jack used the split second he had to protect Babytooth, clapping an arm across his pocket. The choice left his head open to crash into the hardwood floor. Before his sense returned,the monstrous Nightmare was upon him with gnashing teeth and steam pouring from its nose. Jack ducked behind his iron armguards and braced himself against a pain that never came.

Instead, he heard a battle cry - a human battle cry - seconds before an ice-white cannon ball burst against the massive Nightmare's skull. It shattered, revealing itself to be only an unfinished soccer ball, but its sheer weight stunned the beast just long enough for North to somersault over Jack and lunge after the monster with sabers drawn.

For the first time, Jack saw that, yes, St. North's reputation as a master of battle was well-deserved. The ponderous Guardian wore no coat in spite of the frigid air, displaying the Naughty and Nice tattoos on each arm as he slammed his shoulder into the Nightmare and slashed its body with his blades. The swords themselves were amazing too, each the work of a master smith, those he bore the most magnificent in his dominant right fist. It was made of magnificient gold and wrapped completely around his hand, twisting and dancing as though obeying his every whim. The other gleamed silver and bore jagged thorns along the edge, like teeth.

The Nightmare caught this off-hand weapon in its massive jaws and snapped it with a single twist of its head. In response, North raked the broken sword across the monster's face, which drew another bone-shattering scream. Then the toymaker thrust his other sword deep into the Nightmare's gut. With a roar, he tackled the monster straight through the banister and into the open air.

Only a quick catch with his now-free off hand kept North from following his screaming foe. Seems the monster was too massive to fly. North tossed the broken sword's handle after his enemy and spun to face Jack. His neck and white beard were soaked in sweat. "Are you alright, Jack?"

Jack nodded dumbly, unable to voice any of the thoughts bouncing around his mind. His hands drifted together, fingers tracing the familiar runes at his wrist. Despite what he'd seen in North's book, he didn't want to believe that the Nightmares would attack him so long as he had these. But what if he was wrong?

North crossed the distance between them and swept Jack back onto his feet. "Korosho," he sighed, relieved to find the boy unharmed. He set Jack down and pushed the smaller form behind him. "Now go. You cannot be here. The Nightmares, they have come for you."

A wave of indignation rose in Jack's gut as he stumbled from the shove. Of course they were here for him, he wanted to say. This was a rescue mission! But...doubt still lingered in the back of his mind. The Nightmares had ignored him. The monstrous one had attacked. Did they even know he was here? Had Pitch decided he was too much a bother to be worth retrieving?

The thought stung, forcing Jack to blink mist from his eyes. North shoved him again, then dug his off-hand into the red shack he had strapped over his shoulder. Silvery runes sparkled at the bag's mouth, their magic producing a sword to replace the one he'd lost. North brandished both blades, setting himself firmly between Jack and the battle.

"Go," he insisted again, kicking open a trapdoor in the wall. "There is secret passage. Follow it to stairs, which lead to safe house. You will be protected there. Dingle will show you the way. Dingle!"

The last word came as a call, which echoed through the tight halls. On cue, three separate elves - one bearing a box of lit fireworks - burst from the walls and dashed towards them, bells clanging. The noise drew Nightmares from nearby rooms, which charged after them, eyes flashing and teeth rending the air.

North swept the fireworks out of the elf's hands with hsi sword. In the second it was airborne, he punted it right onto the back of a globe-crawling Nightmare. The bombs burst with bangs, flashes, and blinding light. The enemy roared.

"I will buy you time," North called over his shoulder. "Now go!"

He charged into the fray again, his three elves fleeing beneath him in the opposite direction. Two of them darted straight for the opened passage while their fellow lingered behind to yank urgently at Jack's jeans. Jack's gaze flickered from it to the trap door to North. His mind dove into a tailspin.

North's workshop, his holiday, his entire world, was going up in flames. And yet, he was worried about Jack.

Jack should have hesitated more than he did, but that thought rattled him, and he had Babytooth to protect. He leapt for the passageway, every ounce of his combat training yelling at him to run and find somewhere defensible to hide until help came.

It wasn't until he slid, feet-first, through the open door that Jack realized he didn't know anymore where he wanted that help to come from.

"You are not real. You are not true. You are nothing."

Sandman clung to a distant dream, the only solid spark in a black, chaotic sea. The sand surrounding him flickered gold, sending tiny tendrils snaking down dark halls to light the way for others. The color faded in seconds as the darkness pushed back. The massive eldritch Nightmare currently attempting to consume him bellowed in fury and flung the dreamweaver into the nearest wall. They barrelled through the shadow with no sense of direction or time, all while its tentacles tried their damnedest to tear the Sandman to shreds.

The blow to the wall left Sandy momentarily stunned. He hung limp in the tentacles' grasp, then pulled back against the black sand vines and closed his eyes. He reached inside himself as deep as he could go, stretching past the edge of his center into the source of all dreams. He reached for the children: their memories, their wonder, their hopes. He clung to them with all his might and all around him the silence proclaimed,

"You are not real. You are not true. You. Are. Nothing."

The massive Nightmares screamed and thrashed, but could not resist. With a loud pop! it burst, sending the Sandman tumbling on. He struck a wall, fell to the floor, and lay stunned. Sand drifted down around him. It piled under his fingers and kissed his cheeks like snow.


Snow, ice, winter, frost.

Jack. Was he safe? Was he here?

Sandman feared opening his eyes. His body ached with exhaustion. The wound at his back burned, eating away at his power. The Sand could be dead, like in Jack's room. He couldn't bear that.

In the end, his worry for the wintery boy won out. Sandman opened his eyes.

He lay in the dead-end of a new winger under construction on the eighth floor. it would have been dark even without the Nightmares. All around him, a golden flurry covered the floor and door-frames. It shone line sunrise on a stormy morning: distant, pained, and faded, but alive.

Sandman's initial burst of relief died with the realization that Jack as nowhere to be found. His bewildered eyes were the last things Sandy remembered before the Nightmares snatched him away. Had Jack been the creatures' true target? Was the boy once again in the clutches of the Nightmare King?

Sandy tried to stand but was immediately floored by searing pain. The black scar tore at his back like a living beast, spread so far now that it peaked over one shoulder and around his waist. Sandy grit his teeth and summoned up a happy dream, but it was weak and stood no chance against the pain.

Dread crept into the Sandman's bright heart, darkening his light to the faintest glow. This wound would kill him. That was a fate that could not be stopped .

Sandman steeled himself against another surge of pain as the black sand devoured his dark thoughts. He grit his teeth and forced the sensation away, stumbling ot hi feet. It couldn't end this way, he wouldn't allow it. He was a Guardian. And he had a back-up plan.

In the blanket of gold, he spotted a few tiny white lumps. The children's teeth. Slowly, so as not to aggravate his condition, Sandman collected each of the defiled molars. He counted seven total. A magic number. That's what had swollen these few Nightmares into such horrible beasts.

At least these teeth were safe now, white as the day they'd been collected. Sandy cradled them close and bobbed into the air, letting wind currents carry him to where he belonged. As cold air rushed to replace lost warmth, Sandman turned the facts over in his mind and came to a conclusion about what he had to do.

He emerged on the mezzanine of the ruined eighth floor and took in the Workshop under attack. Crushed presents. Shredded trees. Burning machines and shattered windows. His heart broke. This place, this shining city, had been North's beautiful dream. It was gifted to him by the dearest of friends and meant to be shared with the world's children each and every year.

Righteous determination chased the last of Sandy's pain from his body. He would save the Guardians this night and they would restore North's dream. He swore it.

A familiar shriek from overhead drew Sandy's attention to the open air of the ruined dome. There, Toothiana battled half-a-dozen Nightmares at once, each bolstered by children's teeth. Her scimitar danced with the power and precision of a hundred hard-fought wars, but Sandman could see the weariness and missed timing that lurked in every move. Of all the Guardians, the Tooth Fairy was least suited to fight in the cold. Ice threatened to still her wings and her sword forever.

Sandy leapt onto the banister and struck with twin whips of golden sand. They snapped and crackled like lightning, striking down Nightmares one after another. Toothiana clued in after the second strike and began driving the enemy into the rafters. She sliced at their haunches to wound, not destroy, all for the sake of the hostage teeth.

Together, they drove off the whole squad. Tooth sighed in shaking relief and dropped to join her teammate. "Thanks Sandy," she said with a shiver. "I owe you."

Sandman waved her off. There was no time for thanks. He held out the teeth he'd retrieved, drawing a delighted gasp from Tooth. "Oh! Thank goodness. You saved them."

Taking the pieces back, she cradled the precious memories to her chest. Sandy beckoned for her attention, glancing about to make sure no attacks were coming. He formed sand-shapes, his hands dancing from one to the next: a snowflake, a tooth box, a knotted bag, Jack's staff.

Toothiana frowned, perhaps not understanding what Jack Frost's missing memories had to do with their current battle. Before Sandman could explain, an explosion from behind and below made him jump. He turned to find it. Tooth gasped.

"Oh, MiM! Sandy, your back -!"

Sandman winced, though he knew he couldn't hide the wound in his current state. He tried to wave it off but Toothiana grabbed his arm. "It is not nothing! You're hurt. We have to get you help, now."

Sandy had neither the heart nor the signs to tell her that it was already too late. She wouldn't have listened anyway. The Tooth Fairy buzzed around him, chattering worriedly about his condition and how much pain he must be in and oh, Sandy, why didn't you tell us? All the while, she never saw how the ice built on her shoulders or how her entire body became one giant shiver.

Knowing what he had to do, Sandy summoned a dreamsand orb the size of a snowball and poured into it all his knowledge about what was to come. The next time Tooth hovered close, he seized her wrist and lobbed it into her face. It burst. Tooth gasped, "Sandy…?"

Then the scimitar clattered down and she sank to the floor, fast asleep.

Sandy shuddered. Even that small use of his power left his extremities numb. Through the dark sand that ate at his soul, he heard the distant, gloating voice of the Nightmare King.

"Don't fight the fear little man," whispered Pitch's voice in the back of his mind. "Give in. Go to sleep, like your friend."

Sandy ignored him, carrying the sleeping Tooth Fairy to a safe nook and covering her with a paint-stained tarp. Whether magic or imagination, he would not allow Pitch's voice any power in his mind.

"What you allow doesn't matter," said Pitch, his sneer visible even without a face. "Look around, Sandman. Christmas is over. The Guardians will fall and it's all your fault."

It was his fault. Sandy knew that to be true. He'd brought the Nightmare in when his sand touched Jack's mind. He'd been so preoccupied with his own pain that he hadn't even noticed its creation. But he knew now, because Pitch knew, and he would put things right. After that, it would be up to the others.

Tucking Toothiana in, Sandman summoned what was left of his sand to form a golden cloud. This carried him into the open air and over the globe until he hovered directly above the silent North Pole. He reached deep inside him to the source of all dreams, his connection with his friends and fellow Guardians. Among the memories, hopes, and wonder he found there, Sandman could feel the shape of one other. A fifth center, bright and beautiful despite the darkness that kept it at bay.

Sandman put all of his faith into that distant light and dove head-first into the last thing that he would ever do.

North's secret passageway turned out to be a slide, all slick metal and sudden twists in the safe space between walls. As Jack hurtled through the darkness he found himself laughing, sheer adrenaline leaving his body light as the breeze. For a moment, he forgot his dire circumstances and lost himself in the familiar joy, so much like riding the wind through a moonless night.

The fantasy ended all too soon, as did the passageway, which spit out Jack and his elvish guides on the ground floor. The floor had been frozen solid, carrying them ever further, the elves swept into Jack's lap as his extra momentum caught up to them. Together they shot straight into a mob of scrambling yetis and ruined presents, with only Jack's skill at navigating the ice to keep them out from under fuzzy feet.

"Gangway!" he called ahead, dragging his hand to dodge around a yeti in mid-strike. "Watch your footwork, buddy. Coming through - woah!"

He shot to his feet, barely dodging the loose reindeer that charged past, too panicked to watch where it was going. A lone elf clung to the harness around the beast's neck, but being so small it could only dangle helplessly, unable to steer.

Jack twisted to watch it gallop off, while the three elves cheered encouragement of their fellow from the relative safety of his arms. He would have continued to slide backward on his heels, only a familiar heavy accent shouted, "Watch out, kid!"

Startled, Jack turned to find himself face-to-face with a cannon of all things, its iron barrel mounted on two wooden wheels. He'd managed to slide right into its path as the line had been lit. The yetis that held it steady waved at him to get out of the way. Before he had the chance, a pair of fuzzy paws and their quick gray blur snatched him right off the ice.

The canon went off with a thunderous bang!, sending the barrell rolling back in spite of its huge handlers. A chilling roar answered, drawing Jack's eye up to the second-floor mezzanine just around the curve. The massive Nightmare that North knocked from the sixth floor clung to its edge. As he watched, the vague sense of hindquarters that had been struck by the cannonball slipped free of the rest and sank to the ground floor with a squishy plop. The creature shrieked, but its main body held firm to the railing above.

Just over Jack's head, the Easter Bunny cursed under his breath. "Dagnabbit. What does it take to kill those monsters?"

The elves has been thrown off and run away under threat of cannonfire, but Bunnymund still had Jack around the waist and pulled against a fuzzy chest. Jack squirmed, but couldn't get loose with his feet dangling a foot off the floor. Behind him, the rabbit's chest practically vibrated from panting so hard.

His nerves prickling from the sudden return to battle, Jack thumped his head against that trembling chest. "Hey, carrot-breath. You can put me down now. I'm fine."

"None of us are 'fine.'" The arm around him tightened and the chest rumbled with a growl, which sounded suspiciously like, 'you ungrateful little brat.' "We gotta get you somewhere safe."

With that, the Easter Bunny darted off, taking Jack along for the ride. Between the snow and the limp from his wounded leg, Bunnymund wasn't nearly as fast as he could have been, but he still darted from one sheltering support beam to the next quick enough to avoid yetis, reindeer, and the few normal-sized Nightmares that scoured the workshop floor.

"Underground," the rabbit muttered, half to himself and half to Jack. He made a beeline a previously hidden door, which the elves had tugged open. They waved to the pair before darting down the resulting set of stairs, which twisted into the cold stone beneath the shop. "It'll be safer underground, it's always safer underground."

"Fine," said Jack, tugging at the fur on Bunnymund's wrist. "Just put me down. I can walk for myself."

But the Easter Bunny wasn't listening. His green gaze went distant and he began muttering to himself about escaping to the Warren, his own underground lair. But no, he couldn't risk that because if the Nightmares slipped in there too…

A wave of indignation rose in Jack's chest. He might be a waste of space and time, but he was still protegee to the Nightmare King. He didn't need a babysitter, especially not a freaking rabbit!

In one motion, he slammed both elbows into the rabbit's stomach. The blow knocked the air from Bunnymund's lungs and sent the rabbit stumbling. Jack finally broke free and landed on his feet a yard away, braced on a patch of hoarfrost.

Bunnymund coughed roughly and shook the ice from his ruff. "The hell, kid?"

"I am not your kid." Jack scowled. "And I don't need your help."

"Don't need my…" The Easter Bunny bit down before he could say 'kid' again, though the effort to do so looked like it physically hurt him. He scowled at Jack and brandished his weapon. "Look around, ya dill. All this and you in your state? You can't even fight!"

The point of his weakness would have left Jack cold with anger, if it hadn't already been too cold to matter. It was their fault he couldn't fight back! "So what?" he snapped "In case you haven't noticed, these guys -" he gestured around him to indicate the Nightmares. "- are on my side. You're the one in trouble here, Flopsy. Not me."

A hundred arguments seemed ready to burst from the Easter Bunny in that instant, but before any could the too-near shriek of an eldritch Nightmare set his fur on end. Jack's skin prickled with gooseflesh, something he hadn't felt in centuries. They both turned to see that the fallen hind-quarters of the beast on the balcony rear up with a mind of their own, tentacles snapping out in all directions. It flung yetis aside like dolls and sent the loaded, ready canon spinning along the ice. The weapon spun a dozen circles and finally skidded to a halt with its barrel pointed straight at the ceiling over Jack's head.

Again, the Easter Bunny's reflexes were faster. He shouted, "Get down!" and leapt at Jack just as the ick burned out and the cannon fired. Its payload tore through the second floor, shattering support beams and everything else in its path. Wood rained down around them. A metallic shriek announced that one of the workshop's massive machines had been disturbed. The crack of more wooden beams followed, growing louder and louder as the ten tons of steel broke through. It all came crashing down, right on top of their heads.

In the many centuries of their partnership, North had learned to trust the golden blade of Tsar Lunar the Eleventh. So when it summoned him to the destruction of the second floor, he followed.

Plumes of noxious smoke billowed from the fallen machine, which had smashed straight through the ground floor and into the tunnels below. Yetis scrambled throughout the first and second floor, calling for opes, back-up, anything that could be used to stabilize the unstable rubble that filled the resulting hole. North himself bellowed for a fire extinguisher as he ran, only to be met with a wail of distress - all the workshop extinguisher had been used up long ago.

Balanced on the second floor's jagged edge, North expected to find trapped yetis or an injured reindeer. The truth was worse. Bunnymund lay half-buried in splintered wood, the back of his neck stained with blood. Beneath him, barely visible past a fuzzy shoulder, was Jack Frost.

North's eyes widened at the state of his fellow Guardian. The injury wouldn't kill Bunny - those few children who still believed ensured that - but it left him vulnerable in the unstable mess. They had to get him clear.

North crouched at the edge of the destruction and called down, "Bunny! Jack!"

The Easter Bunny didn't respond but Jack did, his white hair and blue eyes jerking towards the sound. He seemed mostly unhurt, yet disoriented from the gall. He squirmed under Bunnymund's weight and tried to push the Pooka off, with minimal success. The debris above and around them gave a dangerous crack.

"Stay calm Jack," said North, injecting as much of a fatherly tone into his voice as he could. "It will be all right, I promise. We will get you out and both you and BUnny will be…"

His encouragement died with the realization that the pair was not alone in their trap. An eldritch Nightmare lay with them, writhing in its death-throes. It'd been sliced in half and trapped beneath the machine, but even that wasn't enough to kill the monster straight out. It cried in anger and pain and reached for Jack with tentacles tipped in claws. It cared nothing for the rubble it disrupted with every twist. All it care for was its last act of destruction before its inevitable demise.

North's mind raced. Sending himself or the yetis into the unstable mess could mean burying Bunny and Jack. But if nothing was done they would be torn apart. The ropes and assistance wouldn't reach them fast enough. He couldn't pull them free.

Below, Jack noticed the Nightmare and scrambled to free himself from Bunny's dead weight. A faint shimmer of ice magic glistened at his fingertips. He shoved Bunny's shoulder and shouted into the pooka's ear, earning a slight shift, but by the time the pooka came around it would be too little, too late.

There was only one thing to do. Abandoning his off-hand weapon, North swung the arsenal bag off his shoulders and plunged his hand as deep as it would go. His arm sank into the familiar magic of a space between worlds, a place to keep his most dangerous weapons safe from the prying hands of elves. He passed over the man metallic handles of sabers, cutlasses, and swords, reaching until his shoulder was nearly swallowed. His fingers finally closed around brittle, aged wood, pulling it free of the heavy cloth.

"Jack!" he shouted. "Catch!"

With that, North flung the old shepherd's crook over the edge. Jack's eyes widened in recognition. He flung himself out from under Bunny's weight and stretched as far as his arm could go. Just as the tentacle reached him, he caught the staff.

The change in the boy was instantaneous. His stance grew stronger and his smile brightened. Blue frost crackled across the antique wood. He spun on the Nightmare and fred a blast of ice that froze its tendril solid. With his next swipe, he hit the main body. The Nightmare roared.

True wonder rose in North's chest, tempered by surge of fatherly pride. Pitch's spells may steal the lion's share of Jack's power, but the boy was still a force of nature. Oh, the good he could do if only he knew his own power!

In moments, the frigid air surrounding the Nightmare crystallized to solid ice. The beast went still, utterly trapped. Ice spread from its prison to coat all the surrounding debris, stabilizing the rubble in the pit. Only the space where Jack stood and Bunny lay remained unfrozen, only covered in a thin layer of frost.

North opened his mouth to shout, "Bravo!" or "Well done!" but before either could form the wind picked up, howling around him like a cyclone. It swirled into the pit, plucked Jack off his feet, and shot him straight into the air. North fell back, barely missing the freezing backdraft as the boy shot past. The Guardian of Wonder called after him, but his voice was lost in the wind.

Why? Why had he done that?

Jack's heart pounded in his ears, his breath reduced to short pants. He darted around the globe and up through the levels of the workshop. He should be happy. He had his staff, he had the wind, he could fly! But all the joy was lost to a roiling sea of confusion, desperation, and doubt.

He'd attacked a Nightmare. It'd been on instinct, sure, but he'd frozen it solid and that was as good as attacking Pitch. Worse still, he'd defended a Guardian. A Guardian who'd protected him from danger even in the middle of their fight…

It made no sense. None of this made sense. He had to get away.

The wind carried him up and would have continued if not for some instinct that held him within the ruined dome. He landed in the highest rafters and tried to pin down what he was missing. Babytooth? No. She still huddled in his pocket, curled into a tiny ball to protect against the cold. The bag of dreamsand he'd been given rested right alongside her, and those were all the possessions he'd ever owned in this place. So what could it be?

A distant whinny finally made it all click. In his blind rush, he hadn't encountered a single Nightmare. They'd flooded the Pole and filled the air, there should have been dozens between the ground floor and his new perch. So where had they gone?

He looked down. From so high above, he could see now what they'd all missed, what the globe and the battle and the destruction had been hiding.

He saw the Sandman.

The dreamweaver stood upon a brilliant golden storm. It swirled over the dead copper pole exactly as the black storm assaulted them in the real world. Dreamsand shown its brightest gold, brilliant as the final burst of a dying star. It drew Nightmares like insects to a scented flame. Dozens galloped around the edge, forming a black ring around the storm. All of the lesser beasts were already entranced, but now the light drew even the eye of the remaining eldritch beasts, which slunk across the globe to draw near.

All the while, the Sandman himself stood in the heart of it all. The ugly black scar consumed his back and continued to eat at him even now. It spread into his limbs, his face, his hair. Soon, it would be the only thing left.

Jack felt his stomach lurch. Something great and terrible was about to happen. Something that would change everything.

"Sandy," he gasped, grasping for a chance to stop this, whatever it was. The sound was lost in the wind. He tried again, shouting louder, "Sandy!"

Sandman paused for only a second to glance at the boy over his shoulder. Then swept the sand over and around his body, forming a giant sphere. The light it gave grew brighter and brighter until it reached every dark corner of the Pole. It drew the gaze of the yetis, the elves, and even the reindeer, who stopped their charging and stared up in awe.

As one, the Nightmares - all the hundreds of smaller beasts and their four remaining massive cousins - let out a scream of hatred. They dove for the golden ball in a single wave, bringing the cold and the storm and the brutal winds. Somewhere in the collective voice, Jack thought he heard Pitch.

That was the last thought he had before the golden sphere exploded in white light.

Jack yelped in pain, covering his eyes. It didn't do any good; he and everyone else in the Pole had been blinded by the blaze. The sheer power of the blast threatened to send him tumbling, but he hooked his staff around the rafter and ducked behind it to save him from the fall. His other arm instantly went around his pocket, holding Babytooth close to keep her safe.

He squinted against the powerful light, catching glimpses of the Nightmares being flung away. A few of the lesser beasts were reduced to dust, the rest shrieked in pain and ran away. Even the huge monsters were lifted from the globe and flung, screeching, into the black night beyond. In seconds, every trace of Nightmare sand was gone from the Pole, except one.

The Sandman turned to look at him, all ancient eyes and a warm, round face. He smiled up at Jack and patted the place above his heart three times.

Then he finally closed his eyes and allowed the black wound to swallow him whole.